Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 8
BY J. C.
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series, part VIII. The editorial office of the TLS (separate from our postal address) is a stone’s throw from Bloomsbury, a pebble chuck from Marchmont Street, where Shelley and Mary lived at a house on the site of No 87; William Empson wrote Seven Types of Ambiguity in a hovel at 65; painters are commemorated by plaques put up by the Marchmont Society. Even the estate agent on the corner with Tavistock Place is called Frank Harris. There are several local bookshops, including Skoob Books, which aims to cater to students but also draws commoners like us.
In Skoob, we found Both Sides of the Ocean by Viktor Nekrasov, “a Soviet writer who was permitted to visit the United States and Italy”. The year was 1960. Pasternak had just died, having been told to refuse the Nobel Prize. Cold War temperature was zero. Nekrasov, forty-nine, knew he was privileged, but also that his report would be read by the KGB. “A Soviet woman writer who visited America said that what struck her most about it was that ‘there was nothing striking about it’.” In New York, the group was shepherded by a guide with the splendid name of Ivan Ivanovich. When some US students of Russian approached them on a train, Ivan was “worried by this sudden confrontation of the two worlds”. Nekrasov had been permitted to travel to America, not necessarily to speak to Americans. However, the students wanted to talk about Moscow (Ivan relaxed) and to sing Russian songs. They had typical Western ambitions: “Unfortunately about a quarter of them will try to ‘open a business’”, Nekrasov says. In one of the most “striking” passages in the book, he writes that there are young people in Russia “who torment themselves with anything to do with the cult of personality. These are the ones who say, ‘We want to know the truth’, and these are the ones who will have the hardest time of all”. Nekrasov was not always cautious. The year before, he attracted attention when he became the first Soviet writer to call for a monument at Babi Yar. In 1961, he was attacked by Isvestia for “promoting peaceful coexistence” with the US.
Both Sides of the Ocean is an interesting period piece by a writer little known in the West. For a 1964 New English Library paperback, Skoob charged us £3.